The Game Archaeologist and the Forbidden RuneScape: Words with Paul Gower

The Game Archaeologist is a lazy adventurer-slash-professor who dons his trademark cap for a weekly expedition through some of the most famous MMOs of the past few decades. Each month he chooses a different title to examine its highlights, talk with its developers, and invite its fans to share their experiences.

Some of you may be old enough to remember comedian Rodney Dangerfield's classic line, "I don't get no respect!" Double negatives aside, Dangerfield's catchphrase resonated with many people -- perhaps even the team behind RuneScape. Despite being one of the most popular MMOs in the world, it's battled a perception of being "that" MMO that's not quite a full-fledged member of the Big Boy's Club. Lord knows that browser-based titles have struggled against such negativity ever since their inception, and RuneScape is no different.

But as I stated last week, perhaps it's high time we get over our exclusion of RuneScape from the discussion whenever MMOs are brought up and start giving the game its due. My inbox's spent a busy week receiving all manner of testimonies about RuneScape, and I saw a common theme of fondness for what was many players' first MMO. Next week I'll let these testimonies out of Pandora's Box (if you haven't already, send me your own RuneScape story via email!), but today I've invited Paul Gower, one of RuneScape's founders, to share his perspective on making and running a gaming phenomenon.

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The Game Archaeologist: Please introduce yourself, your position at Jagex, and your involvement with RuneScape.

Paul Gower: Hi, I am Paul Gower; I am one of the co-founders of RuneScape and currently work on the RuneScape content development team.

Everyone loves a good origin story, and RuneScape's is a bit different than many other MMOs on the market. Could you tell us about how this title came to be?

My brother Andrew had been writing smaller Java games for other websites during the dotcom bubble to give himself some income while he was at university. This inspired him to create his own games website. He decided to go for something a bit larger and ambitious than his previous projects. We'd spent some time playing a MUD, so Andrew wanted to write his own, but he wanted to make it stand out from all the other MUDs. He decided he'd make a MUD with graphics!

When the project was started in 1998 it was going to be called DeviousMud, but by the time we released it in 2001 it had become RuneScape. My brothers and I started developing RuneScape from our bedrooms and the game just grew and grew from there

What were some of the challenges getting RuneScape to market and helping it grow?

In the early days RuneScape was very small, so it was relatively easy to produce, but it was tough working with no budget at all. The serious challenge came as the game became very popular with people playing and telling their friends, so we had to make the decision to find a good way to monetize the game. That is where the idea for the members' version came from, and fortunately lots of people signed up instantly. This was when we realised we had made the right decision and had a more secure future which allowed us to focus on developing more content for the growing audience.

What was your vision for RuneScape at the beginning? Do you think that's held up over time?

The vision of RuneScape at the start was to make an accessible, affordable and enjoyable game that worked in the browser. Most the online RPGs back then were either less advanced or required expensive monthly subscriptions, so there seemed to be a gap to be filled. I think our free version has certainly held up over time; it is currently the largest in the world, and our members' version remains great value for money, so we have stayed true to our initial vision and created a great game.

When did you know that RuneScape was destined to be a hit?

At the start our expectations were very low. Andrew had produced some other games, so we wanted to make it more popular than they were. We knew fairly early on that it was going to be popular, but it is fair to say that we never dreamed it would become this big.

Did you encounter any serious setbacks as part of the growth process?

There have been some minor setbacks along the way as we have grown as a development team of two to a company of 400. There have been some growing pains, but we now have a fantastic team of developers who all bring something very special in to the mix and who have helped shape RuneScape into the game it is today.

Why did you settle on the current business model (free-to-play or subscription) for the game?

When we launched the game we hoped it would be fully supported through advertising, but unfortunately the advertising bubble burst fairly soon, so we opted to release the membership version. After the first week we had over 5,000 people sign up, which we were delighted by. Since then we have continued to develop and expand both versions of the game. We were one of the first to use the free-to-play and subscription model, and it has worked very well both for us and for our players.

What's set RuneScape apart from the competition? Why do you think it appeals to so many players?

The secret lies in RuneScape's size. It is really a huge game with so much variety and content which appeals to gamers of all sorts. In addition to this, the accessibility afforded by being browser-based and the very low cost of entry means that RuneScape is extremely appealing.

How would you describe the game's community?

In a word, epic.

RuneScape 2 vs. RuneScape Classic: Which do you like better? Why do some of the players choose Classic over the newer version?

I personally prefer RuneScape 2. There is so much more to do, it looks better, and there is some fantastic content. Naturally there are some players who prefer Classic; perhaps this is out of nostalgia, but this is the same with most games.

What is your favorite activity in the game?

Probably questing, to be honest. I really enjoy the mix of challenges and storyline [quests] provide and get a real sense of enjoyment from completing them.

Is fielding an older MMO strength or weakness in today's competitive environment?

Having an established MMO is a huge strength. RuneScape has been continually expanded for 12 years, so there is a massive level and depth of content that only comes from an established game.

What would you say to someone who asked why he should check out RuneScape for the first time?

I would say that they should definitely give it a go. The game is easily accessible [and] immensely fun to play... and there is really something in RuneScape for everyone regardless of your gaming interests. RuneScape is so diverse there is something for any gamer to enjoy -- so why not give it a try?

Finally, what are your plans for RuneScape's future? Any juicy reveals?

We have lots of exciting plans for the future but tend to keep them close to our chest; you will have to play to find out!

Thank you Paul!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.